The first thing anyone's likely to love about the Alley's production of Yasima Reza's Life (x) 3 is Kevin Rigdon's stunning set. The back wall of the gorgeous room is lined with enormous curving windows covered in powdery vellum; they cradle a large living room that looks like something straight out of Architectural Digest -- sleek and utterly modern. In shades of cardamom and khaki, the room looks like the epitome of intellectual cool.
Unfortunately, Rigdon's set might be the only thing the audience will end up really loving in the Alley's crisp production. As good as director Pam MacKinnnon's cast is, it can't breathe life into Reza's too-clever script about a dinner party gone all wrong.
The story is built around a sitcom-style conceit. It begins the night before Henry (Jeffrey Bean) and Sonia (Elizabeth Heflin) are supposed to host a dinner party for Inez (Kimberly King) and Hubert (Todd Waite), a man Henry wants to impress for work. Suddenly, there's a knock at the door: Lo and behold, Inez and Hubert have shown up a day early, catching Henry and Sonia in their scruffies with nothing but cookies, Cheez-its and wine in the cupboard.
Life (x) 3 Urinetown
What follows are three different versions of the evening that run the gamut from disastrous to mundane. Reza's head-scratching point seems to have something to do with life being open to interpretation. Both Henry and Hubert are scientists who deal with the outer reaches of space, and Reza clearly wants us to make a connection between the unknowns out there and the unknowns of daily life.
As the four discuss everything from good parenting to astrophysics, they build and break bonds. Hubert and Inez have a troubled marriage, as evidenced by the stingingly funny exchanges between King and Waite. Bean's Henry is a compelling fumbler who can't do much to impress his icy beauty of a wife. And Heflin gives a charming performance as the exasperated Sonia, who tries to prop up her husband's fragile ego even as she questions his abilities.
As compelling as these performers are, they can't make much drama out of Reza's script (translated by Christopher Hampton). Each of Reza's three versions of the dinner party gets shorter and less dramatic as the night goes on, and finally, they just end. For all their hard work, these actors can't make anything happen onstage that's any more interesting than the set's amazing living room.
Through April 18 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 713-228-8421. $35-$52.
Even if you hate the very notion of a show about peeing, Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis's Tony Award-winning show, Urinetown the Musical, is still likely to charm.
The story takes place in an imaginary town where water has become so precious that the citizens have to pay to pee. The poor must gather their pennies to gain admittance to city "amenities." If they're caught peeing in the bushes, it's off to Urinetown, a place from which no one has ever returned. Soon enough it becomes clear that in this world "it's a privilege to pee," as the song says.
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The problems are made worse by greedy Caldwell B. Cladwell (Ron Holgate), the head of Urine Good Company. When he decides to raise the price of admission to the urinals, he sparks a revolt by a band of misfits. Young, blond Bobby Strong (Charlie Pollock) takes command of the situation when all hell breaks loose. Not only is he the best-looking guy around, but he's got a score to settle with Cladwell, who sent her father to Urinetown for peeing on a wall.
Of course, the situation is complicated by the fact that Bobby falls in love with Hope Cladwell (Christiane Noll), the boss man's lovely, good-hearted daughter. But the rebels take Hope hostage anyway, so they can have some bargaining leverage.
Threaded throughout this hysterical melodrama is a funny score sung by an energetic cast that manages to keep a straight face throughout the satire. Under John Rando's direction, the actors are hilarious. Especially good is Tom Hewitt, who plays the narrator, Officer Lockstock. He steals the show whenever he walks out, whether it's to tell the audience that intermission's starting or to divulge the secret to Urinetown (we get to learn about the place before the poor people do). Also terrific is Beth McVey as Penelope Pennywise, the bathroom attendant from hell. As the young lovers Bobby and Hope, the charismatic Pollock and Noll sing beautifully. Strange, funny and surprisingly thoughtful (there's a terrific twist at the end), Urinetown is a wonderful whiz of a show. -- Lee Williams
Through April 11 at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 713-629-3700, $23-$64.